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H.264 to Remain Fee-Less for Free Internet Video Through 2016 (via DF) (mpegla.com)
50 points by rads on Feb 3, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments

The same thing happened with .GIFs, royalties weren't actively pursued for a very long time, but when they were it became a problem.

Let's not make the same mistake again.

For the curious, a quick search yields claims of 2025 and 2028 as the last patent expiration date. This announcement shouldn't please anyone.

How can that be if the standard was ratified in 2003?

Perhaps some of the patents cover optimizations that don't affect the bitstream format. Or maybe they're just bogus patents.

Some of the patents may have been applied for, but not granted until after ratification.

For patents filed after 1995 the patent term is based on the filing date of the application, not the date the patent is granted.

That's twisting the story quite a bit. Compuserve made GIFs (unaware of the patent) and Unisys had been charging companies for the patent for a long time (but were unaware of GIF). When Unisys found out, they started charging. It was hardly bait and switch. At no point did Unisys ever tell people to use GIF because they had no plans to charge for it.

"Unisys does not require licensing, or fees to be paid, for non-commercial, non-profit GIF-based applications, including those for use on the on-line services. Concerning developers of software for the Internet network, the same principle applies. Unisys will not pursue previous inadvertent infringement by developers producing versions of software products for the Internet prior to 1995. The company does not require licensing, or fees to be paid for non-commercial, non-profit offerings on the Internet, including "Freeware"."

--Unisys 1995 (http://web.archive.org/web/19981203000955/http://lpf.ai.mit....)

Unisys has frequently been asked whether a Unisys license is required in order to use LZW software obtained by downloading from the Internet or from other sources. The answer is simple. In all cases, a written license agreement or statement signed by an authorized Unisys representative is required from Unisys for all use, sale or distribution of any software (including so-called "freeware") and/or hardware providing LZW conversion capability (for example, downloaded software used for creating/displaying GIF images).

--Unisys 1999 (http://web.archive.org/web/20021203075728/http://www.unisys....)

Crazy. I knew about the second version of their policy, but didn't realize they actually did say it was free at first.

This is the drug dealer business model. "Sure, the first hit's on me. If you want more after that, you know where to find me."

And taken to the extreme. Get the whole town utterly addicted before you start charging.

Surely this only happens in films ?


I love the abundance of 'XXX is sued by MPEG LA' press releases on their 'media' page!

I guess they designate lawyers using 'squad/platoon/battalion' instead of boring old 'department' ;-)

While MPEG-LA clearly has the prerogative to go after people who infringe its patents by distributing decoders and encoders, isn't this whole "Internet Video" fee thing only enforceable if you enter a contract with them?

There's no way they have a valid patent on vanilla HTTP! I could see some of their patents covering some stuff like generating a seek table, but how the hell could they enjoin you from sending a blob in response to an HTTP request?

Isn't it possible for a video site to never directly enter a contract with MPEG-LA? Is the shrinkwrap EULA on second-party encoder software valid?

That might be true, if you could arrange things such that your site was solely copying around H.264 files it received from elsewhere. But in practice, any site serving video has to be doing at least some transcoding or analysis (think about normalizing aspect ratio or resolution, anonymizing, converting from mpeg2 camera files, etc...), and that requires licensed software.

But you don't have to enter a contract with anyone to get that licensed software -- you can just buy it at retail. MPEG-LA would have to come after you somehow via the software's shrinkwrap EULAs (which have never been tested in court at all).

This isn't true at all. That EULA doesn't transfer patent rights, except as allowed by the patent holder. It's a license from the software manufacturer, not the party that is going to sue you.

But the patents don't cover the process of making the files available to the public via HTTP supported by ads -- it would appear that these restrictions on that are a novelty of MPEG-LA's standard contracts for licensing the patents.

They're obviously enforceable on the organizations that entered into those licensing agreements directly, but what if I bought an licensed encoder off the shelf?

Is the on-disk format itself somehow patented, such that the files themselves are patented articles? Wouldn't that fail the machine-or-transformation test rather egregiously?

No no no, you're making the assuption that "buying an licensed encoder off the shelf" gives you some kind of patent license. It does not. It's a license to run the software from the manufacturer of the software. It sometimes contains a transferable license from the patent holders, for some purposes. Read carefully.

But walking into Fry's and buying a codec product off the shelf for $49.95 doesn't automatically allow you to start a video megasite.

Reading through the fluff On2/Google's VP8 codec still looks pretty interesting:


It will be interesting to see if Google pulls it out as an alternative to H.264.

Anyone has hands on experience with that codec? Are those claims true?

If VP8 is half as good as they claim, Google could make it a very serious competitor to H.264. They own the codec, they own YouTube, they have a web browser and a smartphone OS and they're coming out with Chrome OS before too long. They have leverage.

No hands-on experience, but VP6 was a pretty good codec - at least XviD/DivX/MPEG-4 level, and quite a bit better than Theora. If VP8 > VP6, and it was free, then it would definitely be worth using.

It's a trap!

We can't compress video of that magnitude!

Not long enough, offer a license that doesn't expire until 2030, then we might bite.

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